Ranking the top 10 college football coaches under age 45 entering the 2020 season
Many of these up-and-comers have already reached significant career milestones
Oh, to be Lincoln Riley … or Kirby Smart … or Ryan Day. In other words: Oh, to be young again. Those three coaches have accounted for five College Football Playoff berths since the 2017. They are also all under the age of 45.
Middle-aged, perhaps, but already highly accomplished.
It's not that being 45 or older makes one ancient, but the under-45 demographic (39 of 130 FBS coaches fall in that range) makes up only 30 percent of those set to lead programs next season.
The 10 men listed below are young, strong and talented with incredibly high ceilings. Riley, Smart and Day are the best of the best in that age group. All three hit the turf running with only 19 losses between them.
While Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State respectively hit the jackpot with their hires, most of the brightest young coaches are congregated in Group of Five conferences. Think of Luke Fickell at Cincinnati or Bryan Harsin at Boise State. Half the Sun Belt's 10 coaches are under 45. Six of Conference USA's 14 coaches are in that age group.
With 71 coaching changes in the last three years, the youngbloods just keep getting more chances. The chase remains for the next Riley, Smart or Day.
1. Lincoln Riley (36), Oklahoma
36-6 (.857) in three seasons: Riley's rise to coaching superstardom is a credit not only to him but to Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma administration who foresaw this greatness. When handed the job in June 2017, Riley had a relationship with Baker Mayfield but little on his resume that would suggest he'd be atop this list in such a short period. In three seasons, there have been three Big 12 titles and three CFP berths. Half of Riley's six losses have come in the semifinals. There is no sign things will slow down anytime soon. Why should they? For the first time in his career, Riley will have a quarterback he recruited and developed.
2. Kirby Smart (44), Georgia
43-12 (.782) in four seasons: Smart's success has been such it's fair to ask, what took him so long? Smart long ago could have left Nick Saban's side. He picked his alma mater at exactly the right time. In his four seasons, Smart has won an SEC title, three SEC East crowns and the hearts of Dawgs fans everywhere. The Process has been transferred to Athens, Georgia. His next trick? To actually overcome Saban and Alabama and become the dominant SEC power.
3. Ryan Day (41), Ohio State
16-1 (.941) in one season: The only thing holding Day back is experience. He doesn't have enough of it on his resume to be ranked any higher. But in his first season, he won the Big Ten and took the Buckeyes to the CFP. Don't come at me with he-won-with-Urban-Meyer's-players stuff. Day brought in Justin Fields, made J.K. Dobbins one of the Buckeyes' all-timers at tailback and rehabbed the culture. There's a reason Gene Smith went right to Day when Meyer was suspended in August 2018. He saw greatness.
4. Bryan Harsin (43), Boise State
71-22 (.763) in six season: When Chris Petersen left after the 2013, it was thought to be the end of era. Harsin, Petersen's former offensive coordinator, kept the greatness going. In his first season at Boise, Harsin led the Broncos to a Fiesta Bowl win. Two more Mountain West titles have followed. There have four straight double-digit win seasons. Harsin is one of the top 10 coaches in the country. You have to believe he has had several opportunities to leave but seems comfortable chasing New Year's Six Golden Ticket berths in Boise.
5. P.J. Fleck (39), Minnesota
53-37 (.589) in seven seasons: Winning at Western Michigan is one thing. Doing it in the Big Ten is another. 2019 was a breakout season of sorts. Fleck had the Gophers competing for a playoff spot well into November. An Outback Bowl win over Auburn suggests Minnesota is only getting starter.
6. Josh Heupel (42), UCF
22-4 (.846) in two seasons: There was a collective scratching of heads at Missouri when Heupel left three years ago. Few thought of him as head coaching material. In taking over for Scott Frost, Heupel more than proved himself a coach on the rise with 22 wins in two seasons, a New Year's Six bowl (Fiesta) and an AAC title. Heupel has a plan and recruited well. As a molder of quarterbacks, his next job will be in the Power Five.
7. Tom Herman (44), Texas
47-19 (.712) in five seasons: There's a book to be written about Herman's career already. He's gone from the Best Name on the Board as Meyer's offensive coordinator and Houston's coach to hot seat in his third season at Texas. There's no doubt Herman can coach. In his first 15 games at Houston, he beat Florida State and Oklahoma. But Herman also has seasons of 7-6 and 8-5 at Texas. There's a 10-4 sandwiched in there in 2018 but 2020 (if there is one) will determine Herman's future path. If he doesn't show progress toward overtaking Oklahoma and the ruling the Big 12, the hot seat will be flaming.
8. Lane Kiffin (44), Ole Miss
61-34 (.642) in eight seasons: The Boy King is back! It took a cascading series of events that FAU. He will get a quarterback, recruit quality players and -- if all of it falls into place --will ultimately beat Alabama. Hey, Hugh Freeze did it., but here are. That caused a missed extra point that caused Matt Luke to get fired that caused Kiffin to be available. This is a perfect Power Five restart for Kiffin after a successful run at
9. Mike Norvell (38), Florida State
38-15 (.717) in five seasons: Norvell has that rare quality all athletic directors crave: He develops players. The Memphis seniors on the 2019 team that went to the Cotton Bowl were part of a recruiting class that was ranked 61st in Norvell's first season. Norvell made his bones as an offensive innovator at three different stops with Todd Graham. Now he is carving out quite a path for himself. FSU finally did the right thing after jettisoning Willie Taggart. It hired the obvious guy. Watch the Seminoles return to prominence.
10. Neal Brown (40), West Virginia
40-23 (.635) in five seasons: There's something about Brown. He looks like The Next Great One as a coach who punches above his weight. He has averaged eight wins as a head coach, spending four of those years in the Sun Belt winning at Nebraska and LSU with Troy. A middling 5-7 start with the Mountaineers was actually impressive considering the talent he had on the roster.
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